With elevations ranging from nearly sea level to 12,633 feet, Arizona is home to a surprisingly diverse number of ecosystems—including ones where you’ll find deciduous trees. Yes, the type of trees whose leaves turn colors in the fall.
Renowned landscape photographer Derek von Briesen dubbed it “Arizona’s Almost Endless Autumn” because you can spend nearly three months following the fall colors as they trickle down from the forested high country to the desert creeks.
Of course, Arizona isn’t one of those states where you can drive pretty much anywhere and see the colors. You have to know where to go and sometimes get out of the car and take a hike.
Arizona has some gorgeous spots with fall foliage that will take your breath away. Right in the middle of the Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff and Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon are two of the best known spots to see all the brilliant color changes of the aspen, maple, cottonwood, and oak.
The change typically begins in the highest elevations in late September and then filters down to the lower elevations throughout the rest of the fall.
Late September to late October brings rich yellows and reds to the high-desert creeks near Sedona, Cottonwood, and Camp Verde. By late November, the colors move lower in elevation and farther south. This is an exciting time of year for desert-dwelling nature photographers as autumn in the Sonoran Desert equates to images of yellow cottonwoods framed with Saguaro cacti. Through early to mid-December, colors continue to permeate the Sonoran Desert lighting up all of the canyons such as Araviapa Canyon.
Most colors peak in late November closer to the Valley just in time for the holiday weekend. One of the best places to see that is at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s just a short drive east of the Valley. The awe-inspiring view of the vivid orange and red leaves on the 40-foot-tall pistachio trees make it well worth the trip.
Those of us who love the autumn color and miss it in the desert don’t need to go far to find it. Besides day trips in search of autumn colors, you can also enjoy some unique desert sites that most avoid in the summer.
For many, autumn is when nature does its finest work. So if you’re a leaf peeper, it’s time to start making plans to experience it—the crisp air, a crackling fire, hearty comfort food and, of course, a dazzling display of colorful leaves.
Here are some of the best autumn road trips in Arizona.
Although the town itself is a popular destination for its old-world cowboy charm, the main reason to drive to Prescott in the fall is the beautiful shades of gold, yellows, and oranges of the trees in the area. You’ll find autumn colors in downtown Prescott, along the Greenway Trail Systems, along Granite and Miller Creek, and in the Historic Courthouse Plaza.
In a more spectacular setting, the lakes in and around Prescott and Prescott Valley surrounded by deciduous trees showcase their bright oranges and golds at this time of the year. You’ll find cottonwood and ash trees near Watson Lake along the 4.8-mile-long Watson Lake Loop Trail or on the shores of Granite Basin Lake and Fain Lake in Prescott Valley.
Gorgeous autumn colors surround Lynx Lake in Prescott National Forest in mid-October. And if you love aspens in the fall with their shimmering yellow-gold leaves you’ll find them near Prescott in the Aspen Creek/Copper Basin.
Sedona is arguably the most popular destination in Arizona offering a perfect day trip at any time. However, autumn is one of the best times to visit this picturesque town nestled among towering red rock formations. Although the town’s art galleries, boutique shops, and restaurants for all tastes and budgets are worth the drive, fall in Sedona is best experienced outdoors.
Temperatures are perfect for hiking and several trails offer not only views of the stunning red rocks but also boast some autumn colors. The classic hotspot in the Sedona area is Red Rock Crossing where small waterfalls and yellow foliage along Oak Creek stand out against the red sandstone of Cathedral Rock inspiring photographers from around the world.
Avoid the crowds at Sycamore Creek, a moderate hike accessible via the Parsons Trail near the town of Cottonwood. After a quick hike that drops about 180 feet from the rim of the canyon, one is greeted with a lush, perennial creek lined with trees, all in various stages of autumn transformation. This trail continues for another 3.5 miles until it reaches Parsons Spring. The spring makes a perfect turnaround point for casual day hikers. Or continue deeper into the Sycamore Creek Wilderness where soaring sandstone walls, extreme solitude, and historic cabins await.
Or, for more fall colors set against the red rocks drive Dry Creek Road to Boynton Canyon Road or the Red Rock Loop.
3. Montezuma Castle National Monument
Fall is also the perfect time to visit one of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument. Built by the Sinagua (who had absolutely nothing to do with Montezuma and his people) the five-story cliff dwelling housed an entire village. Besides a look at the stunning cliff dwelling in October, you can also enjoy the changing colors of the sycamore trees along the trail.
Also, part of the national park, Montezuma Well is 10 miles away and is definitely worth the short drive. Here you’ll find a natural sinkhole fed by an underground stream in the desert. The resulting oasis is home to an array of wildlife but you’ll also find a few Sinagua cliff dwellings on its steep walls. You’ll also find more giant sycamore trees here along the short trail leading to the natural stream feeding the “well.”
4. Tuzigoot National Monument
Tuzigoot National Monument sits on top of a hill overlooking a valley. An ancient village of the Sinagua overlooks a marsh on top of a hill here, a hilltop pueblo, one of the largest in the area. The self-guided, third-of-a-mile trail through and around the 110-room ancient pueblo also offers gorgeous views of Verde River and Tavasci Marsh. The valley below filled with deciduous trees adds a splash of autumn color to the desert.
5. Mount Lemmon
The highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Mount Lemmon offers several leaf-peeping opportunities making it a great day trip in the fall. The 30-mile-long Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway leading to the top of the mountain offers stunning views changing from giant Saguaro-filled areas to deciduous trees, aspens, and pines. In the higher elevations along the way, several hiking trails lead in the middle of this mix of pines and deciduous trees bursting with color in mid-October.
You’ll find colorful oaks and maples along with pines in Bear Wallow, a small valley accessible from Bear Wallow Road. Or hike the Aspen Draw trail or Aspen Meadow trail on the top of the mountain to be in the middle of aspen colonies showcasing their gorgeous fall colors. Other areas to stop include the Cypress Picnic Area, the Palisades Visitor Center, and the Box Elder Picnic Area.
6. Ramsey Canyon Preserve
Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Southeastern Arizona is known for its birding opportunities but around mid-October it also showcases all the autumn colors of the Arizona sycamore, oak, and maple trees growing in and around it.
The Loop Trail through the bottom of the deep, wooded ravine takes you through a wooded area with a stream in the center showcasing fall colors in October. Starting past the visitor center it includes two connected loops linked by footbridges, a short, half-mile trail, or a longer one just over a mile through the valley floor. For those who need more of a challenge, a steep trail leads through a wooded area up the ridge.
Popular on weekends in mid-October when the leaves peak, the preserve is still quiet enough for a great time among fall colors. As a bonus, you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife—at least a few wild turkeys—besides the humming birds the preserve is famous for.
7. Boyce Thompson Arboretum
The Arboretum located in Queen Creek Canyon is the state’s oldest and largest botanical garden. With spectacular views of Picketpost Mountain, Boyce Thompson Arboretum features plant collections from the world’s deserts, historic buildings, and hidden gardens along miles of trails. The Arboretum has been called “the most enchanting” Audubon Important Birding Area in Arizona and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Vibrant fall colors take over the lush flora which makes late November the best time of the year to explore the gardens. Peak color-spotting varies due to weather and climate conditions but a good bet is during the time that the park would typically hold its annual Arizona Fall Foliage Finale during mid- to late-November. Leaves from honey locust, pomegranate, and soapberry trees offer light yellow to deep copper and golden tones before they shed while the Arizona sycamore tends to reach a yellow-red, the cottonwood a bright yellow, and the walnuts can reach a dark red.
8. Oak Creek Canyon
The river gorge is a perfect place to escape year-round and is equally as appealing for leafers from October through November. As the temperatures drop, the leaves do the same but unlike other locations in the West that feature yellowed aspen leaves, Oak Creek is home to the maples and oaks normally associated with the East Coast.
One of the more popular destinations along the Mogollon Rim nestled between Sedona and Flagstaff the area is a two-hour drive to the north. Walk along the West Fork Trail (the most popular trail in the entire Coconino National Forest) surrounded by deep-red color or drive the canyon’s length to cover more ground. Though the area lost foliage during the 2014 Slide Fire which burned a devastating 21,227 acres, there are plenty of reddish-gold hues flooding the space—with a uniquely Southwestern take. After all, you can’t see red leaves and red rocks in Vermont.
For more on Arizona, explore these articles:
- Five Fall Road Trips in Arizona
- Discover Awe and Adventure in Arizona
- Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts
For more on leaf-peeping, explore these articles:
- Here’s Where to See Fall Foliage for the Ultimate Leaf Peeping Road Trip
- America’s Fall Foliage: Leafing through America
- America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for a Fall Road Trip
Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.
—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall